Rebekah Brooks’ astonishing return
The reappointment of Rebekah Brooks to her old job is an act of colossal hubris by the Murdoch organisation.
Yesterday was perhaps, to paraphrase Rupert Murdoch’s words from a few years ago, the most arrogant day of his life.
Many will take this appointment as evidence that nothing has changed. After all the storm and drama of the telephone hacking inquiry, the power networks have re-established themselves and despite the casualties in the ranks of the former News International, things are pretty much back to normal.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), set up a year ago, fails to meet many of the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, as its analysis details. Key sections of the industry including The Guardian, which broke the crucial stories that lead to the hacking scandal, have refused to sign up to IPSO, regarding it as insufficiently independent.
Problems with the tabloid press continue, although it is also the case that there have been cultural changes in the newsrooms and they have ceased to be the centres of organised crime, as they were a few years ago.
And now this. Having defended herself in the courts by claiming, to put it simply, that she was too incompetent and absent to have known what was going on under her watch, Brooks has now regained her position at the top of the organisation. She was found not guilty of criminal offences by the courts, but that is not the same as saying she was free from blame or responsibility in the larger sense, and people know that.
The question is, will the Murdoch organisation get away with this? I think the answer is yes and no.
Obviously Murdoch can hold to this course, and Brooks can hold her job, but this will damage both him and the organisation.
And that’s leaving aside the possibility that the appointment will itself provoke the release of more information about the past (as promised in a YouTube video posted by former News International Security Chief Mark Hanna).
First, there is the politics inside the larger organisation and among the investment community. With this move, Murdoch has made it clear that News is still a dynastic organisation, at a time when his increasingly evident age makes him more vulnerable than in previous years. He has also made it clear that his attachment to Brooks is both strong and strange – not amenable to prudence or reason.
Secondly, The United Kingdom has something that Australia lacks – a powerful, well-resourced and active consumer lobby group in Hacked Off, which is continuing to give voice to the victims of media excess, and to scrutinise the mechanisms for media accountability.
Thirdly, since the dawn of the telephone hacking inquiry, social media has continued to develop into an effective ‘fifth estate’, in which informed citizens can exercise a rough but effective and very public form of accountability on the excesses of public figures, including journalists and media proprietors. Media power works differently these days, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all.
Lastly, by visiting this decision on the public, Murdoch is behaving as though his organisation and the newspapers it produces have a sufficient bank of cultural capital to carry it off. Yet repeated studies in the United Kingdom, and also in Australia, show that the mainstream media is in a crisis of public trust. Circulations and revenues are falling dramatically. People are turning elsewhere for their news and information.
Media proprietors can still behave as though they rule the world, but their power is increasingly illusory. We saw this most recently in Australia, where the Murdoch papers campaigned vehemently against the federal Labor Government in Queensland and NSW, only to see the biggest swings occur in Victoria and Tasmania, where the coverage was more balanced. For the first time in a long while, there was no discernible effect on voting trends from a Murdoch media campaign. Or there was the campaign against Labor in Victoria during the last state election, which failed to prevent a Labor Government from being elected.
It used to be the case that a government could not survive without the consent of the Murdoch organisation. This is no longer true.
In the United Kingdom and in Australia, the most important assets of traditional media – influence and trust – have been eroded.
Wise media leaders should be attending to this crisis in public trust and finding new ways in the modern world to build influence. How? The answer is very old-fashioned. You serve your audience. You built up a history of interactions. You become recognised as an honest, useful broker. You are not arrogant.
By imposing Brooks back on the British public, Murdoch further decreases his dwindling supply of cultural capital. When the history is written, this will be seen as an episode in the decline of empire. If this was Shakespeare, Murdoch would be cast as King Lear.
Margaret Simons is the Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism and the author most recently of Kerry Stokes: Self-Made Man.